Much has been written about the New Cinema of the 70s; the maverick filmmakers, the genre bending style of storytelling, and the jettisoning of traditions and the studio style of manufactured entertainment. Five Easy Pieces is one of those seminal films, with the ubiquitous rebellion scene of Jack Nicholson unceremoniously clearing an entire table in a diner after telling the waitress to “hold (a tuna sandwich) between her knees.”*
But that is just one scene that, according to filmmaker Bob Rafelson, is completely atypical to the rest of the movie. Five Easy Pieces is actually a very quiet, contemplative mood piece, following a lone blue-collar oil rig worker who has eschewed his cultured, upper middle-class roots until his estranged father’s deteriorating health brings him home. If you’ve never seen it, you may not be surprised by the pitch-perfect performance by Nicholson in his first leading role, but you may find the story’s somewhat confused antihero’s motives and pervasive misogyny, troubling.
A little backstory: Director/Producer Bob Rafelson helped “create” the The Monkees. As their celebrity status was waning, Rafelson decided to go “all in” and direct his first film, Head, a psychedelic box-office disaster that signaled the end of the band, but the beginning of Rafelson and Nicholson’s years of collaboration. (After a decade throughout the sixties in smaller roles, Nicholson considered giving up acting altogether, and tried his hand at writing and directing. He wrote Head.) With the Monkees’ death knell, Rafelson and his business partner Bert Schneider started their own company, BBS Productions, and gambled everything they had on a road picture, starring and directed by Dennis Hopper. The film was Easy Rider and it singlehandedly revolutionized movie making for more than ten years. Rafelson gave his reluctant buddy Nicholson a supporting role that made the movie going public open its collective eyes and recognize a new and exciting face in modern cinema.
Easy Rider’s box-office exploded, and within weeks, every studio made deals with anyone with long hair and a desire to “stick it to the man,” as long as they could deliver on time and under budget. Columbia Pictures partnered with BBS, giving the renegade filmmakers free reign to create any films they wanted. The next picture on their docket was Five Easy Pieces, written by Rafelson and Carole Eastman, who wanted to inject a European, Nouveau Vague aesthetic to a purely American story. What they did was perhaps not earth shattering, but instead perpetuated the idea of middle class restlessness, and a culture dissatisfied with the status quo.
Nicholson’s Robert Dupea comes from a snobbish family of musicians, but it’s not something we glean right away. Working on an oil rig by day, and bowling with his buddies and his unsophisticated girlfriend Rayette at night (Karen Black, also getting real attention for the first time after a “blink or you miss her” performance in Easy Rider), Robert is ready to crawl out of his working class skin. When bad traffic on the way to the rig one morning pushes him to the breaking point, he climbs out of his car, and amidst the gridlock, hoists himself onto the back of a moving truck and expertly plays a piano with abandon. He’s very willing, once traffic starts back up, to ride the truck and play Chopin towards whatever destination the truck is bound for.
It’s this feeling of restlessness and forward motion that the filmmakers are hoping to capture. Once Robert learns his father is dying, the story becomes a road picture, much like Easy Rider. After picking up two militant women (read: “Lesbians (!)”) they end up in the famous diner scene. More interesting than the iconic scene, though, is the follow-up, where the more outspoken “Palm Apodaca” (that’s her name) applauds Robert on his lunchtime rebellion. He answers, “But I didn’t get (the toast), did I?” The greater truth then, is with all their noise and protesting, the under-represented middle class is still not getting what they want.
When Robert arrives home, the dysfunctional clan that includes his sister, his brother and his brother’s typically attractive and “amorous” wife, his silent and stoic father and his father’s vein-pulsing caretaker, make up a rogue’s gallery of toxicity. It’s clear Robert is ashamed of his now pregnant “uncultured” girlfriend, who he’s secreted away in a nearby hotel. But she’s wiser than he (or we) imagine, and takes a taxi to the house. An afternoon fling with his sister-in-law and further degradation of Rayette, coupled with a last ditch effort to reconnect with his near catatonic father constitute a further spiraling of Robert’s already crushed psyche.
Robert’s existential crisis continues to “will” out, making for a sad, uncomplicated finale, that may have felt groundbreaking for the time, but now plays more as cowardice and relentless misogyny.
The demoralization of women was a “byproduct” of ’70s cinema, that contemporary audiences will take understandable exception to. The postwar economy’s inbred machismo may have come to a confused boiling point by the time of Vietnam, but the ugly subjugation of women was even more obfuscated by the many “enfant terrible(s)” in their quest for artistic rebellion.
All of this makes for a complicated reading of Five Easy Pieces. The best way to enjoy the little triumphs the film has is by measuring the performances (all excellent), the cinematography (Laszlo Kovacs earth tones and wide landscapes of central California, juxtaposed with tight, claustrophobic framing of the family in Washington are a marvel), and the direction as more intriguing than the sum total of its parts. And with The Criterion Collection’s handsome DVD which includes several short documentaries and Rafelson’s audio commentary, you’re sure to discover several gems that help Five Easy Pieces retain its status as another important chapter in the story of American filmmaking.
The iconic Diner Scene: